Monday, March 24, 2014

Matthew 25 Revisited

My reading has taken me back to the kingdom parables of Matthew 25. When I first came to serve First Christian Church in Las Vegas I was asked a number of times, “Have you been to Vegas before?” My answer was, “Yes, a couple of times.”

After a few weeks my answer was adjusted to, “No. I've been to the strip a couple of times; but this is my first time in Vegas.”

It’s true: aside from a few blocks either side of Las Vegas Blvd (“The Strip”) from about Washington to the north to around Russell to the south, Vegas is not a lot different from any metropolitan area of two million people.

I say, “…not a lot different…” The presence of the strip and its influence is never far from the surface. A few weeks ago I left the gym where I work out and drove to work down Charleston—a distance of about six miles, with eleven traffic lights. I counted 14 people working major intersections with cardboard signs that read, “Homeless”, “Hungry”, “Anything Helps,” etc. That was prior to 9:00 AM!

In the office I deal, directly or indirectly with a couple dozen requests for assistance every week—anywhere from the bus passes issued by the local rapid transit system to food to gasoline to help with rent, utilities, and even for eyeglasses. People wait in the parking lot and approach me as I walk to my car; they approach me at the gas pump as I fill my gas tank; they wait at the door of McDonald’s and roam the parking lot at Wal*Mart.

And if there’s an event at the church in which food is served, you can count on at least one scroungy, bearded person with a back pack to accept our hospitality (and we do always welcome them).

Can you spell “overkill?” 

As a Christian I am only too aware that Jesus’ only direct judgments were related to the way we respond to the poor and to the most vulnerable of society—the “least of these” from Matthew 25.

In this environment there are two distinct threats to the integrity of ministry. The first is simply to become callous and cynical. A number of exposĂ©s in recent months have revealed that those who work the major intersections with cardboard signs count it a bad day if they don’t clear $400-$500 per day! Folks, I have the top academic degree in my profession and have over fifty years experience. I’m near the top of the pay scale in my profession, and I don’t make that much, even when you include (now that I’m retired) my pension and social security!

The people who come to our church for assistance quickly learn our system and “work the system”. “God’s Groceries” is our food bank that serves more than 450 families every month; but, we have to limit them to one bag of groceries per month. They obviously don’t miss many meals, because they’re back in line the next month.

There are “regulars” who learn my limits, and all of them soon come to understand that nobody related to our church will give cash under any circumstances. And almost all of them assume (and some do so with belligerence!) that I/we are obligated to give them what they want. Many will promise to “pay me back” on Friday; although, in over fifty years of ministry I’ve been “paid back” only once (by a trucker named "Z. T." for Zachary Taylor)!

So, it would be easy to be callous and cynical; indeed, I confess that I’m there! The grace is that (1) I know I’m cynical, (2) I recognize that I have neither the ability, the right nor the desire to judge whether the presented needs are valid and legitimate; so my policy is to help all who come to me—within the limits of my resources (although a significant number don't wan't to accept my limits.)

The second threat to ministry integrity is that we become “partners in crime” with those who have chosen this way of life, thereby diverting already limited resources away from those who are legitimately “the least of these.” My own policy is extremely vulnerable to this threat. The truth is that there is a population of professional panhandlers who have more income than I, and by my policy of helping everyone, I contribute to that injustice.

Another truth is that the real “least of these” includes children, the elderly and the ill who cannot—CANNOT—get a job and fend for themselves. Nor can they show up at on distribution day at God’s Groceries or stand on a street corner with a cardboard sign. Taking away food stamps and unemployment benefits may “motivate” a few able-bodied people to get jobs; but, “the least of these” is hurt worse by such oblivious and arrogant attempts to manipulate poverty. 

Jesus told his disciples, “The poor will always be with you.” Was it because he knew there always will be those whose political and economic ideologies do not acknowledge the legitimacy of “the least of these?” Or, if they do acknowledge the legitimacy, they virtually never mention it in their ideological rhetoric.

A final truth is that our culture has created a growing population of hard-working, honest people who simply can’t make a living income in the present economy. At least a part of this problem is created when some corporations exploit cheap labor overseas. There simply are fewer and fewer jobs available for Americans who are among “the least of these”.

I wish I had a solution. I wish somebody had a solution. But I am left with a charity policy that at best is inadequate and probably is unjust. And every time I pass a person holding a cardboard sign I’m left with an empty, guilty recollection of the words from Matthew 25: “Inasmuch as ye did it not to the least of these, my brethren, ye did it not to me.”

Just a part of the daily grind of ministry. It keeps me humble, I hope. And on that downer, I begin Monday.

Together in the Walk
Pastor Jim

Friday, March 21, 2014

The “Nazareth Manifesto”

I’m guessing that most people get pretty focused on books as they read them. On the other hand, maybe it’s just part of my unique weirdness that line after line of Jim Wallis’ book, On God’s Side triggers new thoughts and new ideas for sermons, blogs, church newsletter, etc.

Part of the attraction is that line after line of Wallis’ writings restates something I’ve tried to write or say—only Wallis writes it so much more effectively.

His primary thesis, as is mine, is that our American culture is living out an extreme and belligerent partisanism—from Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. to Old First Church in Centerville, USA. As I have tried less effectively to say, Wallis sees value in an open dialogue between all adversarial participants, and he affirms that each side has something of value to offer for the common good. The common good is the final goal of all his writings.

And he grounds his thesis in his understanding of the Christian faith.

Tragically, one element of evangelical Christianity, because of its deep convictions about biblical eschatology, will see the common good as a compromise, and therefore an unacceptable concession to the unique rightness of their perspective. Perhaps the rest of us, in our apostasy (I apologize for my cynicism; but I’ve decided not to edit it out, because I think they truly see us as apostate) can go ahead and seek the common good; while all the time leaving the door open for any possibility of finding other common ground upon which they and we can work together.

Wallis says that both conservatives and liberals have made major contributions to the common good. Conservatives contribute a concept of individual responsibility, while liberals offer a call to social responsibility. In my view he is correct in his assessment that the greatest flaw in our culture is that each side seeks to absolutize its own position while overlooking (or at least minimizing) the other’s.

In the same way, Christians have divided the gospel with some evangelicals focusing correctly but incompletely upon what Wallis calls an atonement only gospel, with Jesus as exclusively savior. They see Jesus’ teachings about justice and serving, e.g., the Beatitudes, Luke 4 and Matthew 25, et al, as intended for a different dispensation that is yet to come, and not for our present earthly existence.

Liberal Christians, on the other hand, tend to avoid the mystery of God’s salvific acts in Jesus Christ or to declare them metaphors (because they can’t explain them), and to focus correctly but incompletely upon Jesus’ clear and consistent teachings about such things as economics and the poor or loving both our neighbors and our enemies—the social gospel. In that perspective, Jesus is exclusively teacher.

My first sermon in seminary class made the point that the same New Testament contains both Matthew 25 and John 3. So, Wallis’ conclusions resonate deeply with me.

I am drawn especially to what Wallis calls Jesus’ “Nazareth Manifesto” recorded in Luke 4. These are the first public words, the first sermon, the first act of ministry for Jesus following his baptism. His words constitute his understanding of his purpose, and he gets his job description from Isaiah 61.

Jesus’ own self understanding is rooted in his proclamation that the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God is at hand and is being fulfilled and lived in the present moment. To be sure, there is an element of “not yet” in his proclamation—an eschaton toward which God is calling history. But Jesus is clearly calling people to participate in the kingdom now; and that participation is to be manifest in acts of kindness and compassion and in becoming advocates for justice. To miss the call to present participation in the kingdom is to miss a major part of Jesus’ work and message.

On the other hand, participation in the kingdom requires conversion. After declaring his manifesto in Nazareth, Jesus, from that time on began to preach, “Repent! For the Kingdom is here!” Repent. That means so much more than simply feeling sad or apologetic for our wrongdoings (although those feelings are not precluded in the call to repentance). The word in the original language is metanoia, and it means simply “to turn around.”

We’re going in the wrong direction, and getting further and further from God and God’s kingdom; and that holds true whether our correct but rigidly incomplete proclamation is an atonement only gospel or a gospel exclusively of social responsibility. To neglect either is to leave our proclamation incomplete.

The younger generations get it. That’s why they’re leaving the churches by the droves! They want a gospel of integrity—complete and comprehensive. And they are turned off by rigid rules and by churches that are more concerned about defending their doctrines than about living them. They’re turned off by churches that are concerned more about self-justification than about walking with the teacher and letting the teacher lead us into wholeness.

Together in the Walk,

Pastor Jim

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Balanced Bibliography

Do you read? And, if you read, do you venture beyond devotional books and fiction? And do you ever—EVER—choose to read a book from a perspective with which you already know you disagree?

I often wish I had authority to set reading requirements. I truly believe (based on my own experience) that if Christians would read more on a regular basis, and if their reading would reach beyond devotional books and fiction and the sources that serve only to reinforce what they already know and/or believe—that we would see a much deeper sense of understanding and commitment to a gospel that addresses not only our individual salvation but also our individual and corporate calling to make the world more just for all God’s children. ALL of them!

 (NOTE: I did not suggest not reading devotional or inspirational material! I suggest only that our reading should represent a balance of sources and perspectives that push us beyond our emotional and spiritual and cerebral status quo.)
The following bibliography represents a cross-section of books, from devotional and inspirational to books that call for direct engagement of the world by Christians. The bias behind my list is a preference for balance, and finds its clearest voice in Jim Wallis’ writings. As a journalist, he calls for political balance between the liberal and conservative perspectives, and believes that each has something of value to offer.

As a Christian, Wallis again calls for a balance between the evangelical focus on individual salvation and the liberal application of the gospel in ministries of peace and justice. Each is true to the gospel; but neither is complete in itself.

Since I can’t require any reading, I’ll simply recommend the following, listed in alphabetical order by author:

Bandy, Thomas, Christian Chaos and Kicking Habits: Welcome Relief for Addicted Churches. Also Spirited Leadership: Empowering People to Do What Matters

Daniel, Lillian, When “Spiritual but Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church

Lewis, C. S., The Chronicles of Narnia [The Series] and Mere Christianity

Lucado, Max, It’s Not About Me, Come Thirsty, Facing Your Giants, [and many others]

Palmer, Parker, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit

Rohr, Richard, The Eight Core Principles

Swindoll, Charles, Laughter (1 & 2), Living the Proverbs: Insights for the Daily Grind, and The Grace Awakening: Believing in Grace is One Thing. Living it is Another. [Or anything else he has written!]

Wallis, Jim, On God’s Side (What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned Abut Serving the Common Good), and Conservatives, Liberals, and the Fight for America’s Future

Happy reading—which should lead to more perceptive living!

Together in the Walk,

Pastor Jim

Monday, March 10, 2014

What Are You Giving Up for Lent?

My Pastor, Donna Rountree, shares that one of her parishioners has decided to give up “feelings of unworthiness” for Lent. Next year, she says, she’ll give up something easier, like cigarettes. It’s a wonderful idea, and it’s timely because most people I know have those feelings occasionally (and some seem to work at cultivating them!)
Donna hosts an email group of clergy, and she asked for ideas to help her member who longs for feelings of worthiness.
Someone quoted Paul in Romans 5:8, “But God proves his love for us in that while were still sinners Christ died for us.”
Some referred to great Christian quotes through the ages:
·         “God loves each one of us as if there was only one of us to love” ~ St. Augustine
·         “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more. There is nothing we can do to make God love us less” ~ Attributed to Bishop Desmond Tutu.
While these affirmations are true and wonderful and may receive cognitive confirmation from everyone, they probably don’t reach the deep corners of the human soul to touch the sources of those feelings of unworthiness. Those sources are experiential, not cognitive, and most of them have long histories of reinforcement.
Still, the quest to give up feelings of unworthiness is valuable for several reasons. In the first place, many negative actions and relationships emerge out of negative self-images. Virtually all abusers were abused—most molesters were molested. Self-affirmation is a matter of preventive maintenance.
Perhaps a more crucial justification of the quest is theological: “feelings of unworthiness” deny the grace of God.
In the Broadway Musical, “Man of La Mancha,” a Spanish gentleman named Alonzo Quijana fancies himself a knight errant named Don Quixote. He and his companion, Sancho Panza, sally forth on a quest to fight the unfightable foe and “To Dream the Impossible Dream.”
On their first night (after fighting the infamous windmill0, they find lodging at an inn. Employed there is a woman named Aldonza. She waits tables by day, and by night supplements her income as a prostitute.
But Don Quixote sees her differently: “Sweet lady; fair virgin,” he gushes upon first sighting her (at which the muleskinners who frequent the inn erupt in thunderous laughter). He calls her “Dulcinea”, which in Spanish means, “Sweetness.”
She thinks he’s taunting her; and yet, his gentle advances throughout the play begin to chip away at the callused exterior she’s built up. Finally, she confronts him: “What do you want of me?”
“I ask of my lady that I may be allowed to serve her; that I may hold her in my heart, that I may dedicate each victory and call upon her in defeat. And if at last I give my life, I give it in the sacred name of Dulcinea.”
On the verge of tears, she begs, “Once, just once, would you look at me as I really am?”
And he responds, “I see beauty, purity. I see the woman each man holds secret in his heart, Dulcinea.”
She responds with the following song:
“I was spawned in a ditch by a mother who left me there
      naked and cold and too hungry to cry.
I never blamed her. I’m sure she left hoping that I’d have the good sense to die.
And then there’s my father. I’m told that young ladies can point
      to their fathers with maidenly pride.
Mine was some regiment here for an hour. I can’t even tell you which side.
So, of course, I became, as befitted my delicate birth,
The most casual bride of the murdering scum of the earth.”

And the song ends,
“Can’t you see what your gentle insanities do to me:
rob me of anger and leave me despair.
Blows and abuse I can take, and give back again; tenderness I cannot bear.”
There appears on the scene at this point a doctor, the fiancĂ© of Alonzo Quijana’s niece. She has engaged him and the local priest to bring her uncle back home. After all, he’s becoming quite an embarrassment to her. The doctor disguises himself as “The Knight of the Mirrors”, and forces Don Quixote to look into the mirror of reality and see, not Don Quixote, but an aging fool.
And Don Quixote crumbles into a weeping, quivering mass of disillusionment.
“The Impossible Dream” seems dead. Aldonza, on the verge of joining the quest, withdraws into her shell of bitterness and self-loathing; and Don Quixote succumbs to the “melancholy burden of sanity.”
Later, back home, Alonzo Quijana lies on his deathbed with family and friends gathered about. As he dictates his last will and testament, Aldonza forces her way into the room and begs Senor Quijana to restore to her the vision of “Dulcinea.” A memory is triggered deep in the old man, and he rises from his bed to reclaim his identity as Don Quixote. But the effort is too much, and even in this moment of reaffirmation, he collapses and dies.
Sancho Panza weeps, “My master is dead.”
But Aldonza comforts him, saying, “A man died. He seemed a good man; but I did not know him. Don Quixote is not dead. Believe, Sancho. Believe!”
Taken aback by this strong affirmation, Sancho says, “Aldonza?”
And she responds, “My name is Dulcinea.”
By treating her throughout as a person of unique value and worth, Don Quixote’s grace has raised her up—has transformed her. She is a new person.
Self-identity is formed in response to people’s perceptions of acceptance or rejection by significant others. Feelings of unworthiness emerge from put-downs, taunting, bullying (including spiritual bullying from legalistic, pharisaical, guilt-oriented moralizing). I suggest that the antidote is also experiential—that when people consistently receive affirmation and confirmation, they live out the positive expectations implied by those affirmations.
Dulcinea! Dulcinea!
I see heaven when I see thee,
And thy name is like a prayer
an angel whispers:
Dulcinea! Dulcinea!
Together in the Walk


Friday, March 7, 2014

If At First You Don't Succeed...

There’s a story about a new, young preacher whose first sermon at his new parish was well received. But the next week, he preached the same sermon again.

The people weren’t too worried. After all, he’s young and probably nervous. They spoke among themselves, “We just need to encourage him,” which they did.

But when he repeated the same sermon on the third consecutive Sunday, the elders took him aside. “We understand that you’re young and new and inexperienced. What can we do to help you develop other sermons?”

The young preacher replied, “Oh, I have other sermons ready; and, as soon as I see evidence that you’ve heard this one, I’ll move on to the next one.”

Boy, Howdy! Have I been tempted to do the same thing!

There’s an issue before us as Americans and as citizens of the Earth, that needs to be addressed over and over and over. I’m not arrogant enough to believe I have the definitive Word on the subject, even though I have addressed it many times in this blog and in other venues.

This time I thought I’d broach the subject with a number of quotes from another, more influential source. Jim Wallis is founder of Sojourners, and edits and publishes Sojourners magazine. I stopped writing on the subject when I discovered Wallis’ writings, because he says exactly what I feel, and does so in a manner much less adversarial than my own efforts have been.

Wallis’ passion, like my own, is for bipartisan collaboration for the common good. His presupposition, like my own, is that both the right and the left have important gifts to offer the pursuit of the common good, and that the ideological warfare that has replaced civil debate is perhaps history’s greatest barrier to that common good.

The quotes that follow are from two of his books:

[Jim Wallis, On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group) 2013.]

[Jim Wallis, Conservatives, Liberals and the Fight for America’s Future (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group) 2013.] This little book contains excerpts from On God’s Side, listed above.
I use a Kindle, which gives “Locations” instead of page numbers.

“The day after the 2012 presidential election brought a great feeling of relief. Most of us, no matter whether our candidates won or lost, were so weary of what elections and politics have become that we were just glad the process was over. Many were disappointed with how dysfunctional and bitterly partisan politics in Washington, DC, had undermined their deep desires for hope and change. Politics has severely constrained those possibilities by focusing on blame instead of solutions, and winning (ideological confrontations) instead of governing [italics and parenthetical mine]. … But the election results produced neither the salvation nor the damnation of the country, as some of the pundits on both sides seemed to suggest. Instead, they called us to go deeper.” [Opening words of the Preface of On God’s Side, Location 165].
* * *
“Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” ~ Reinhold Niebuhr [from Conservatives, Liberals and the Fight for America’s Future, Location 39].
* * *
“I am a democrat [proponent of democracy] because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government… The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows…. I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.” ~ C. S. Lewis [from Conservatives, Liberals and the Fight for America’s Future, Location 44].
* * *
“Perhaps the greatest loss is to the common good—because I believe that both conservative and liberal insights and commitments are necessary for it to exist. In short, I am convinced that the common good requires us to be both personally responsible and socially just (italics his). These are the two best big ideas of conservatism and liberalism respectively.” [from Conservatives, Liberals and the Fight for America’s Future, Location 52.]
* * *
“The 24/7 news coverage today… doesn’t really “cover” the news but rather fuels the audience’s already-held prejudices about what is happening. Almost all of it is biased, much of it is distorted, some of it is just plain lies, and too much of it is downright hateful. Unfortunately, we are losing genuinely important ideas that the other political side has, which are often critically needed to find more balanced answers to our complex social, political, and economic problems. We’ve lost our integrity in the public arena, substituting ideological warfare for genuine and rigorous political debate, replacing substance with sound bites…
“In such a polarized, paralyzed and increasingly poisonous political environment, it is very difficult to find or even discuss the common good. But I believe that both the conservative and liberal philosophies have critical contributions to make in solving our problems and that the best ideas from both are essential for reestablishing a serious public discourse about the common good.” [from Conservatives, Liberals and the Fight for America’s Future, Location 73.]
Most of my political exposure, other than the virtually universally biased media, is on Facebook, where some of my friends complain constantly about the “liberal press” or the “leftist media,” etc., with virtually no critical evaluation of the biases of their favored conservative sources. At the same time, other friends continuously point out the inconsistencies of the conservative media without critical analysis of their favored liberal sources.

I can think of only one Facebook friend who may share my own passion for trying to find balance and bipartisan collaboration.

I recommend—no, I implore—my readers (both of you!) to read carefully the writings of Jim Wallis referenced in this blog, as well as his earlier book, God’s Politics: When the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. I also recommend Parker Palmers Healing the Heart of Democracy as a call to healing, reconciling collaboration to replace the current state of ideological warfare.

Together in the Walk,